From sharing Big Macs with David Beckham to preparing young footballers for the pitfalls of life as a pro, Pat McGibbon has taken an interesting career path
The margins are so small and Pat McGibbon knows that more than most.
20 years ago, the hard work was seemingly done. Signed by Manchester United at 18, the imposing centre-back from Lurgan spent a few seasons on the periphery, inching ever closer to the big time.
Around him, others were doing likewise. The much-heralded ‘Class of ‘92’ were getting opportunities. But there was a reason why it took McGibbon a while longer to get his chance.
“My brother, Philip, took his own life eight months after I went across. Whenever something like that happens, it’s obviously a very difficult experience. You have to deal with it and reflect but move on quickly as well.
“Otherwise it’s going to hold you back. I probably lost a wee bit of confidence in the very early stages of my career after what happened. It’s just natural.
“There’s the mental and emotional aspects to it as well – there are all those parts of the game that you need to be a top player.
“We were so close – typical brothers. The club were terrific because the gaffer told me to take as long as I wanted. But what I found after being home was that after two or three weeks my circle of friends were going to university, doing their own things. I loved football and I needed to get back into it. That’s not saying it wasn’t hard to deal with – of course it was – but if I wanted to make a career for myself within the game I had to get over that and probably going out training and playing matches was my therapy.”
After returning to Manchester, McGibbon worked hard. With Steve Bruce, David May and Paul Parker all battling various injuries, a first-team breakthrough seemed imminent. In May 1995, as United still battled Blackburn for the Premier League title, he was named on the bench for a key clash with Coventry at Highfield Road. Sitting alongside him was David Beckham.
On the field were Gary Neville and Nicky Butt while Paul Scholes scored the opening goal. That summer, there was more good news. He was assigned a shirt number for the 1995/96 season and in United’s official team photo, he’s in the second row with Beckham on one side and Eric Cantona on the other. The big grin says it all.
A month after the side’s young guns infamously lost to Aston Villa on the opening day of the campaign, United hosted second division York City in a League Cup first-leg tie at Old Trafford. McGibbon got his opportunity and was selected at centre-half, alongside Gary Pallister. It was an experienced side. Parker, Denis Irwin, Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe and Brian McClair all started but United’s midfield, featuring three youngsters in Beckham, Phil Neville and Simon Davies, struggled.
York should’ve been in front long before Paul Barnes opened the scoring midway through the first half. Five minutes after the restart, it got much worse. The visitors thumped a long ball forward and McGibbon and Pallister both stepped up, trying to play offside. But the flag stayed down. Barnes was through on goal so McGibbon frantically chased before taking him down. A straight red card and a penalty followed. Barnes tucked it away while Tony Barras added a third two minutes later. It was an embarrassment. One of the biggest cup shocks ever.
Afterwards, McGibbon was demoralised. Driving home with his family, they stopped at a McDonald’s for some comfort food. He walked in and there was Beckham, with his father, doing likewise. The team-mates slumped over their Big Macs, not saying much.
The story goes that McGibbon never played another competitive game for United after his ‘nightmare’ debut and was banished from Old Trafford, never to be heard of again. The truth is different.
“I was in the first-team squad for the following season and I did quite well in pre-season and played in the Umbro Cup against Nottingham Forest. The gaffer liked us getting more experience so I headed on loan to Swansea. I had played one game for them but I was still training three days a week at United. At one United session, I went in for a tackle with Ronnie Wallwork and my knee went the opposite way. I was out for five months and had two operations. I came back the following spring and Wigan offered to take me on loan and I ended up scoring the goal that got them promoted.
“United offered me a two-year contract but Wigan offered to buy me. At that stage, the fact I would be playing competitive football and because I had scored an important goal for them and they were progressing, I went. And the fact I played over 200 times for them, I don’t have any regrets.”
McGibbon enjoyed five years at Wigan before less-successful stints at Scunthorpe and Tranmere and finished out his playing days back home with Portadown and Glentoran. While with the Latics though, he qualified from the University of Salford with a degree in physiotherapy. But even though he continues to do some part-time physio work, coaching is his passion and he recently picked up his Uefa Pro-Licence.
There was a brief spell as manager of second-tier Newry City too, an experience he enjoyed.
But he’s also immersed in educating young players. He founded a coaching programme in the Lurgan area called Train To Be Smart which centres on improving and developing children without unnecessary pressure, essentially giving them direction rather than false hope.
The initiative spawned a newly-established club, TTBS Juniors, with various underage teams now in place. He’s also working with a leading mental health group in Northern Ireland to try and improve the framework used by underage coaches.
McGibbon is one of the lucky ones. He’s still tied to the game, unable to ignore the allure of it, despite a high-profile setback while a young, hotly-tipped youngster at a big club. Those that have followed a similar path often grow disillusioned, frustrated and angry by what could’ve been. It’s a cliche that he’s managed to avoid.
“For reasons of their own, there was quite a few players at United that maybe didn’t fulfil their potential or fell away from the game itself. Giuliano Maiorana got badly injured. Adrian Doherty was a terrific player who was really unfortunate with injury. And Ben Thornley was as good as anyone of that 1992 group.
“There was a lad – Paul Wratten – who when I first went over was a terrifically-talented player. But sometimes it’s fate through injury and other times it’s whether you have that whole holistic approach to it. For some, the physical attributes let them down, sometimes the tactical or the mental.
“Coaching young players now, the want is for the finished product. The want is for the coloured boots, the fancy car and if you ask them why they want to be a footballer, it’s not about waking up every morning and getting to do something they love. It’s more about the rewards they can get from it. People don’t understand the sacrifices that have to be made in order to get to that point. Phil Neville says it in the Class of ‘92 documentary – about having to drive through things. The example he used was the boot room with the apprentices and having to do the chores for the first-team lads. There’s that resilience factor that you need, especially when, like in my case, you get sent-off or you get slated by the press.”
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